State of the Union Conference 2021: Opening speech
28 Sep 2021 - 12:01

Opening speech State of the Union Conference 2021

By Monika Sie Dhian Ho, General Director of the Clingendael Institute

Good morning your excellencies, dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Monika Sie and on behalf of the entire Clingendael team I want to welcome you to the 2021 Clingendael State of the Union Conference.

When I watched this year’s State of the Union address of President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, it struck me that she started and ended her speech by referring to the European soul. She quoted Robert Schuman who said: Europe needs a soul, an ideal, and the political will to serve this ideal. In her concluding words she pleaded to strengthen our European soul.

Now ‘strengthening the soul of our Union’ is a strong metaphor. It reminds me of the way in which romantic nationalists talked about the nation and the people of that nation. It refers to more than lofty goals. It denotes a belief in a shared heritage of ideals that are carried over from generation to generation. Ideals that color and orient a way of life.

Now, in political practice, ideals are carried over by political narratives rather than birth into a nation. These political stories give us an idea where we are coming from, and a vision of where we want to go to. Political narratives give a sense of purpose, a common future to a community, they can mobilize solidarity, define rights and obligations, and channel expectations.

We thought that it would be timely to make European narratives the theme of this year’s Clingendael State of the Union conference. Towards European narratives in a global context. Strengthening the soul of Europe requires discussing and debating our European narratives.

Narratives in our view are not just words, smart communication and spin. Narratives are about grand strategy, underlying political conflict and choices, and the exercise of power.

There is a renewed urgency to discuss European narratives for at least five reasons.

First: the Great power context.

You could say that Fukuyama with his ‘end of history’ has lost, and Huntington with his ‘clash of civilizations’ has won the game of fortune telling and predicting the future. Economic globalisation has not turned out to be the big equalizer by pushing all societies in the direction of market economy and democracy. Political systems, civilizations will continue to differ. The rise of China and the persistence of the Chinese model has been the sobering experience in that respect. The Chinese government is a strong narrator. The Chinese define what they aspire, and they assertively manifest themselves in Europe and other regions in the world. This forces Europeans to make more explicit what they stand for, what they want to protect and promote. What story Europe wants to tell?

Second, the challenge of diversity within the European Union.

Europe is not a nation, it consists of 27 Member States with 27 different European narratives and perspectives. Integration and interdependence has brought us to the Europeanization of political questions that are highly politically salient aspects of the way of life in those 27 societies. Like the way we integrate immigrants. And the way we raise our children. How to accommodate diversity into an umbrella European narrative that represents these 27 societies, that generates alternatives to unification, where intrusive harmonization in highly politically salient areas is felt unacceptable. This is an extra challenge for Europe, compared to the other Great Powers that are nation-states. Or in the words of Tusk: disasters such as for example Brexit, or Poland’s potential exit from the EU, very often happen not because someone has planned them, but because someone has been unable to plan a wise alternative to such a potential drama.

Third: the polycrises that Europe has gone through in the course of the last decade or so.

The financial and eurocrisis, the migration crisis, the Atlantic crisis, and the COVID-19 crisis. Each of these crises challenged Europe as a community. European integration has increased the interdependence of the European states to such an extent – by opting for 1 euro, by abolishing the internal borders – that they are forced to react together to these crises. Whereas they are not one nation, and their domestic institutions and political preferences still differ.

We often speak about ‘the European community’, but in sociological terms Europe is not, or not yet a full-blown community. According to the American sociologist Talcott Parsons a system like the European Union will only have the capacity to mobilize internal solidarity, and to adjust to big challenges, if it forms a community. To speak of a community, according to him, a system needs a common economy, needs to be an economic community, and common institutions that allow for common and binding decisions. It requires a political community.

These aspects of community have been realized by European integration: we have an internal common market, and common institutions. But beyond that, to be a full-blown community requires societal community. In order to mobilize solidarity, a sense of togetherness is required. Of cultural community, of common identity, values and belonging.

Contemporary Europe is in a way a half-way house, being an economic and political community, whereas not, or not yet being a strong social and cultural community. And each of the polycrises has in fact challenged Europe as a social and cultural community. Which refugees will we protect together in our cultural community, if we no longer have internal borders in our economic community? And which conditions as regards cultural homogeneity and ‘the rule of law’ are appropriate, if steps in the direction of social community are made with for instance NextGen EU? Von der Leyen said in her speech: I believe that it is when you are tested that your spirit – your soul – truly shines through.’ Discussing our political narratives also means discussing whether we can and want to be a social and cultural community, what we define to be of value, and what the rights and obligations in that community are and will be.

Fourth: we need democratic debates about that common future and our narratives.

Economic integration does not automatically produce social and cultural community. Integration by stealth, the idea that integration continues step by step until there is no turning back, is undemocratic and unproductive. That is a fourth and pressing reason to discuss our European narratives and counter-narratives.

And a fifth and concluding reason, is that paradigm shifts are taking place and are necessary. European narrative building should be self-critical, based on learning from policy failures, and based on science and evaluation as our source of knowledge.

In dealing with the multiple crises, we see several strategic paradigm shifts underway. To name a couple most important ones:

  • The state is brought back in.
  • The turn to a geopolitical role for Europe.
  • And the necessity of new alliances in Europe.

So, many urgent reasons to discuss European narratives in the three days to come.

I am delighted that two wise and inspiring Ministers, two friends of Clingendael with a long-standing career in European integration, will open our discussions on European narratives. A warm welcome to Minister Clément Beaune and Minister Tom de Bruijn. Thank you very much for joining us. And happy to pass the floor to my colleague Rem Korteweg, who will moderate the keynote speeches. I wish you all a very fruitful conference.

Join us and register here for other sessions of the State of the Union Conference 2021.